A few years ago when the figures on Chinese urbanization first made it to the West little by little the general reaction was one of silent amazement. 20×20 sounded like a cultural program, but this code evidently stood for providing housing to the equivalent of perhaps twenty entire countries: cities for 400 million people are to be built in just twenty years. That is more than the entire population of the USA.

This news brutally confronts one with the fact that since Constantinos Doxiadis urban development thinking in the West has restricted itself to districts and neighborhoods; even the scale of city or region is hardly addressed anymore. In the Netherlands it was considered audacious to plan for a new city of 200,000 people and this has been virtually the same in other Western countries.

Today, in the most prosperous parts of the world a declining population is seen as a more serious problem than population growth. Yet world-wide there will be housing needed for some three billion people in the coming forty years. And we have not discussed the rehousing needs of still another billion people who now live in absolutely inadequate conditions.

So, what happened? Didn’t we do mass and public housing? What was that like again?

In the Netherlands the architectural profession is virtually synonymous with home construction. A century’s experience designing public housing has made the Dutch architect a residential housing specialist par excellence. Yet after the post-War ‘reconstruction period’ during which dealing with ‘the big number’ was the central issue, attention shifted entirely to the individualization of design: the delivery of a unique, context and lifestyle specific product. Criticism of the anonymity of large-scale residential districts led to a total renunciation of everything that that had been built along those lines in favor of making the individual central. Perhaps we live in a society which can allow such accuracy in the harmonization of demand and supply. Perhaps it is a question of a developmental phase: after providing the bulk of a population decent housing a calmer phase follows (assuming a continuous increase in the standard of living) during which more specific solutions become possible. Then again, perhaps it is a unique historical moment when such a large part of the population of this country can or could be approached almost personally. It could equally be a collective delusion in which we have fooled ourselves into thinking that personal happiness, development and individuality are linked to the expression of a facade or a front yard.

In the Netherlands and much of Europe we have indeed bid farewell to blueprints, repetition and uniformity, but is that farewell as definitive as we think? Is this extreme individualization sustainable? Is there not something to be learned from mass construction and the industrial production of housing such as, for example, from that which houses and provides an urban environment for 70% of Russia’s population? And on the other hand is there not something from our experience with ‘small numbers’ that can be applied to dealing with big ones? After all, outside the Netherlands and poly-nuclear garden city Europe the mass housing construction machine drones on at top speed.

We must search for an answer at the level of the block. In this issue Bart Goldhoorn and Alexander Sverdlov propose the block as the basis for individually tailored mass residential construction.[1] Such a discussion must firstly deal with affordability, the building process (constantly expanding permit, certificate and consultation procedures), production speed, volume, flexibility, transformability and repetition as well as with differentiation, diversity, user influence and freedom. A number of various proposals are presented in this issue in order to introduce a sensible individual freedom via the rationalization of urban development and the construction process at the block level and simultaneously keep costs manageable. On this level Western architectural bureaus can export expertise, but there are also fascinating experiments and experiences in Latin America.

More fundamentally, it is about living together and society. Mass residential construction is often also called collective residential construction, but there is a meaningful difference between the two. Mass residential construction seeks to solve a problem and in doing so models the population in an effort to confirm the status quo. It does so at best at a higher material level. Collective residential construction suggests a form of organization with a political dimension, interaction and group dynamics. The difference between the masses as economic data and the individual person as a political being is crucial here.

It is at the block level that another organization of society begins, that resistance can be offered to values and norms imposed by government authorities and by society as a whole, that the experiment gets a chance. It is the level at which personal choices can be effective.
Here the term ‘resistance’ is involved. The very notion of ‘resistance’ (hello 1970s, are you still there?) was discredited in the 1980s, but might be more positively appreciated these days. It was and is a vulnerable position, one connected with ideas on ‘the margin’, that can easily be swept from the table in stating we must concentrate on ‘the real’ issues like sustainability and the future of this planet, to name but two.

By acknowledging the political dimensions of mass housing, the city fabric’s ‘openness’ becomes an issue once again.

1. This issue was conceived and developed in collaboration with Bart Goldhoorn and Alexander Sverdlov, curators of ‘Collective City’ for the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR 2009).

The Complex History of Sustainability Timeline